Monthly Archives: March, 2016

Thoughts On The Winter In Detroit, 2016

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Cheering for a baseball team run by an 86-year-old billionaire is pretty exciting. We don’t often say it in so many words, but Mike Ilitch’s mortality is a big reason why the Tigers have been one of baseball’s best teams over the last decade. A person less comfortable with death might shy away from such unpleasant thoughts, but I am not that person.

After the Red Wings won three cups in six seasons, Ilitch turned his attention to his woebegone baseball franchise and decided he wanted to bring a World Series to the city he loved. Before he died. He gave new GM Dave Dombrowski the resources and freedom he needed to make a winner out of the AL’s punching bag. Free agents started coming to Detroit, the team reached the Series in 2006, and they wound up winning four division titles from 2011 to 2014. After more than a decade of losing, the Tigers had winning seasons in seven of ten tries from 2006 to 2015.

The club was relevant, popular, and powerful. But the World Series Ilitch wanted so dearly eluded him and he found himself closer to 90 than 80 while his beloved Tigers languished in the summer heat of 2015. In August, he gave the reins to Al Avila. Avila had done everything he could in an assistant role to prove he deserved a shot, but in his first gut-check moment, he decided to keep bumbling manager Brad Ausmus on for a third season. It was concerning to watch the new regime, one that claimed it was going to move the organization into the 21st century, retain one of the least impressive managers in the game. Al Avila had failed his first test.

But he would not fail another.

At the beginning of each offseason, I outline what the Tigers need to do over the winter to put themselves in position to compete the following year. This year, I asked Avila to acquire two starting pitchers (one very good and one solid), a star outfielder, three quality relievers, and some bench stuff. While the Tigers didn’t sign the exact player I suggested in any of those cases, Avila did acquire a player to fill every single hole in the roster he inherited from his predecessor.

The flaw in Dombrowski’s approach in Detroit was his unwillingness to build depth in the middle of the roster. No one could find stars like Dave, but he let far too many terrible relievers and replacement level position players onto his rosters. Avila did not make the same mistakes during his first offseason in charge. Without mortgaging the future, the Tigers put themselves in a position to compete in 2016.

The Tigers have three great hitters in the middle of their lineup. They have Ian Kinsler who remains solid. They have Victor Martinez who still has a chance to contribute before father time comes calling for him. Even with uncertainty surrounding center field, catcher, third base, and to some extent shortstop, the Tigers have good reason to be comfortable at every spot on the diamond. Catcher and third base look to be the positions most open to disaster, but both starters are young and showed promising signs in 2015.

The starting rotation isn’t adored by the projection systems, but those systems aren’t counting on second half Verlander or healthy Sanchez. They don’t know Shane Greene couldn’t feel his fingers in 2015. I wouldn’t say the Tigers have the best rotation in the division. They probably don’t even have the second best rotation in the division, but if Verlander-Zimmermann-Sanchez form a healthy and reliable top three, it should be enough to keep them in it. The 2013 Tigers they are not, but there is reason for optimism.

The bullpen won’t resemble the Royals or Yankees, but adding three solid back end relievers to go along with the interesting middle relief options they had in-house makes this the deepest bullpen the Tigers have had in quite some time. Even with the injuries to Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy, the bullpen remains better than the ones they went to battle with in 2014 and 2015.

Nothing about this roster screams 95 wins, but each of their AL Central rivals is flawed in their own way. The Royals and Twins lack starting pitching. The Indians and White Sox are wide open at several positions. There is less boom or bust in the Tigers than the other teams, but slow and steady might win the race. The American League is very balanced this season and the AL Central is no different.

The Tigers are built like an 86-88 win team and it appears as if the division winner won’t need many more. I won’t tell you that I believe strongly that this team will win the division, but I absolutely believe they will be right in the thick of the race all year. I think Cleveland, Kansas City, and Detroit are all 86-89 win teams, with Chicago and Minnesota close behind in the 80-85 win window. There are no bad teams in this division and no great teams either.

Whichever team winds up a little healthier and a little luckier probably takes the crown, and it seems plausible that one of the others could wind up in the Wild Card game. The Tigers aren’t positioned to run away with anything, but without destroying their shot at 2017, 2018, or 2019, the Tigers gave themselves an opportunity to win in 2016.

By now you should realize this isn’t a place to find bold, brash, and/or hot takes. The Tigers had a good offseason given where they started and I think they are a very real threat to win the AL Central. Without any truly great teams lurking around the AL, that puts them in fine position to win the pennant.

But it’s March and nobody knows anything other than that Mike Ilitch really wants to win and doesn’t have that many years left. There’s no reason to think he’s dying any faster than the rest of us, but this is a person who was alive before the Tigers won their first World Series in 1935. The clock is ticking and if it’s late July and the Tigers are in need, Al Avila will certainly have his owner’s blessing to do whatever it takes.

The final scene of Season 6 of Parks and Rec (spoiler alert) features Leslie and Ben stepping on an elevator. We don’t know where they’re going, but they’re clearly heading into some sort of chaotic and challenging future. That scene reminds me a lot of the scene from Breaking Bad (spoiler alert) when Walter White gets into the snow covered car in New Hampshire on his way to Felina. And that scene reminds me of the final scene from the sixth Harry Potter (honestly it’s too late for you if this is a spoiler) when Harry, Ron, and Hermione realize they’re about to spend a year hunting Horcruxes.

The Tigers find themselves in one of those moments. They’ve done everything they can to prepare, but there’s still no predicting or controlling what happens next. Baseball is mostly chaos. Beautiful, preposterous chaos. They did everything they could this winter to make sure 2016 ends with the title Mike Ilitch covets and the season will still probably be decided by something helplessly outside of their control.

This was a well-executed offseason and it should make for interesting and exciting baseball this summer. Yet the Tigers have a singular mission: to win a World Series before Mike Ilitch dies. They did everything they could this winter to maximize their odds of success this season, but baseball is unforgiving and cruel.

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2016 Bellwethers, #1: Justin Verlander

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5: Francisco Rodriguez | #4: James McCann |#3: Nick Castellanos |#2: Anibal Sanchez

To the surprise of no one, Justin Verlander is the bellwether of the Tigers 2016 season. I never really intended for there to be suspense relating to the ordering of this list, but there was never any question about who belongs at the top. Four years ago, Justin Verlander was the best pitcher in the league. His 2013 season was pretty solid overall, but a number of bad starts that summer displayed cracks in the foundation and softened his numbers. The 2014 campaign was better than the ERA made it look, but it was a far cry from the Verlander of old. He started 2015 on the DL and his first few starts brought us into conflict with our respective deities.

And then he came back. In his final 99.1 innings, he posted a 56 ERA- and 64 FIP-. The strikeouts were back, the velocity was good, and he was finally putting in the work to study the opposing batters. It was either one of the most welcoming signs we’ve seen in some time or it will prove to be the biggest tease of the era. That’s the question we have entering 2016.

In the second half of 2015, only two pitchers posed a higher fWAR than Verlander: Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta. Using RA9 as a base instead of FIP dropped him all the way to 9th. And that’s with a pretty Verlander-normal .270 BABIP. His second half line from 2015 was something you wouldn’t have doubted for a second if it had come at the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013. It’s reflective of exactly who he once was.

But he also had strong runs to close 2013 and 2014. Was the end of 2015 just another one of those runs before he loses it again? Or was he finally healthy? Or did his efforts to actually prepare for his opponents pay off?

I think it’s safe to say he still possesses the potential for greatness. His physical skills haven’t diminished to the point at which that is excluded, but even if his 2013 and 2014 struggles were about his health, it’s not like injuries are the chicken pox and you only get them once. Father time will come calling for us all, and it’s not that common for a pitcher to have a great year at 33+.

As recently as the second half of last year, Verlander looked like the kind of guy who go spin off a 6-7 WAR season, but prior to that he was looking like someone who might never crack 3 WAR again. We’re walking a tightrope here when trying to predict what comes next. At 33, you’d expect decline. At 33, you’d expect more injuries. After a few bumpy years and injures, you’d expect more.

But there was a time when Verlander was invincible and he looked like that guy the last time we saw him. I think my position is unchanged from what I said last year, and for much of the two years prior. Verlander is still going to have a lot of great nights, there are just going to be more and more rough ones as time goes on.

Yet if he’s healthy and stays that way, and if his health was what killed him during the dark years, maybe he has another year left in the College of Aces. If Verlander is Verlander and finds something close to the form he found in late 2015, the Tigers can win the AL Central. If Verlander is a 5, 6, or 7 win pitcher in 2016, the Tigers will almost certainly make the playoffs.

Imagine for a moment that every other player performs exactly as expected by the major forecasting systems, but Verlander has a great season. If that happens, the Tigers would get their win total revised upward and they’d be pegged as a likely wild card favorite with a clear shot at taking the division. The difference between mediocre Verlander and great Verlander is almost enough to mitigate the concerns we have about every other player on the roster. If they get good Verlander, the club needs just small gains from guys like Sanchez, Castellanos, and McCann to make them real contenders.

The Tigers built themselves a competitive club this winter, but the most decisive piece of the entire puzzle is the one they’ve had the longest. As goes Verlander, so goes the 2016 Tigers.

2016 Bellwethers, #2: Anibal Sanchez

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5: Francisco Rodriguez | #4: James McCann |#3: Nick Castellanos

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that Anibal Sanchez’s 2013 season was a career year, but the thing about career years is they demonstrate a player’s potential. From late 2012 into early 2014, Anibal Sanchez pitched like one of the best pitchers in the entire league. And even in an injury shortened 2014, his 89 ERA- and 71 FIP- put him firmly in the league’s top tier.

He missed less time in 2015, pitching a total of 157 innings, but the results were dramatically worse. His 123 ERA- and 117 FIP- were his worst marks since becoming a full-time starter during 2009. And you can trace the problems easily; he gave up too many home runs. In fact, he gave up 29 HR in those 157 innings (1.66 HR/9) despite allowing just 33 total HR from 2012 to 2014 in 503.2 innings (0.59 HR/9).

Here’s the thing about home runs, they’re bad. Sanchez allowed essentially one full home run more per nine innings than he had during his previous three seasons, and while home runs surrender a minimum of one run per occurrence, they quite often happen with men on base. On average, a home run is worth about 1.7 runs more than an out. So if he gave up 17 more dingers than he would have if he met his 2012-14 levels, that’s an extra 30 runs or so. That accounts for essentially the entire increase in his runs allowed numbers in 2015.

There are two sides to this story. The first is that Sanchez was probably unusually lucky/successful when it comes to preventing home runs in 2012-2014 while being unusually unlucky/unsuccessful at preventing them in 2015. Sanchez was never truly as good as he looked during his peak and isn’t truly as bad as he appeared last season. Baseball is highly random and home runs are particularly random for pitchers.

This isn’t to say that pitchers don’t influence their home run totals, it’s merely that the difference between a ball that’s caught in the deep outfield and one that clears the fence are essentially the same, but they yield very different results. So some of this is just noise and you can probably infer Sanchez didn’t totally lose his skills because we had an inflated view of his previous skills and a deflated view of his current ones.

But leaving the basic regression aside, as I wrote a number of times last season, Sanchez seemed to have a tendency to throw exceptionally bad pitches at bad moments last year. Overall, I believed his stuff looked pretty normal, but he just threw some really bad pitches at times and hitters didn’t miss those at all. What I was unable to say at the time was whether or not that was stupid, dumb luck or if it was based on some sort of flaw in his delivery or approach.

After the season we learned he was dealing with shoulder issues that he hadn’t really disclosed. Without being his doctor, it’s impossible to know what exactly the impact of that injury was, but arm fatigue, no matter the cause, can lead you to take a pitch off and wind up serving a hanging slider.

If we take this at face value, we can say that Sanchez’s problems were in part caused by health issues and he didn’t just become a much worse pitcher. But that doesn’t necessarily bode well. Maybe he’s all better and can get back into a 3 WAR season, or maybe he’s entering the phase of his career when he’s going to routinely deal with these injuries and never have a chance to pitch at full strength. We just don’t know.

For this reason, Sanchez is the second biggest bellwether on the Tigers roster this year. There’s a world of difference between a 1 WAR starter in the middle of the rotation and a 3-4 WAR starter in that same spot. Now that we know Daniel Norris isn’t going to be at full strength to start the year, the Tigers margin for error is even smaller. As I’ve said all along, the AL Central is going to be very close and Sanchez offers one of the widest ranges of possible outcomes of anyone on the team.

It seems entirely possible that Sanchez muddles through 2016 as a below average starter and gives the Tigers 130 or 140 mediocre innings. But it’s also very possible that he’s healthy and gives them 180 great innings. Normally I roll my eyes when people talk about ceilings and floors because anyone can suck and most anyone can have one great season, but I think Sanchez’s probabilities for each are quite high. Maybe call it a 25% chance of disaster, 25% change of greatness, and 50% chance of average. For most players, I would personally predict a much narrower distribution.

Wins are going to be very precious for the Tigers and Sanchez offers one of the clearest paths to greatness of anyone on the roster. If Sanchez returns to form, the Tigers have a great chance to get back to the postseason.

What I’ve Learned As A Baseball Writer

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

To the best of my recollection, the 20th anniversary of the first baseball game I ever watched is coming up next Friday. I know it was either 1995 or 1996 because I remembered watching it in at my parents’ house in Toledo and we didn’t move there until the summer of 1994 and I distinctly remember Alan Trammell being in the lineup, and he retired after the 1996 season. I remember it being during Spring Break and I remember it was against the Twins in Minnesota, so Opening Day 1996 seems like the winner.

This will also be, as my domain subscription notice just reminded me, my fourth Opening Day writing about baseball. Twenty years as a fan. Ten years since I first saw my team play for something. Three and a half years since I decided to start this site.

One thing I’ve learned in those years is that the human brain is really good at getting used to things. It’s not always good at making decisions, regulating emotions, or remembering the location of keys, but its ability to absorb a set of circumstances as normal is remarkable. I’m not really afraid of heights, but every time I ride in an airplane I’m constantly amazed that everyone on board isn’t running around screaming in terror because we’re 35,000 feet about the ground. Honestly, we’re all just cool with flying? 

Things that at one point seemed incredible quickly become routine and mundane. No matter how rewarding the stimulus, experiencing it enough dulls your sensitivity to it. This is true in serious matters like drug addiction, but also more casual vices such as watching your team win baseball games.

I spent the first ten years of my baseball life cheering for bad baseball teams. The idea of experiencing a winning season was exotic and exciting. When it arrived, it was like getting a milkshake IV or having a litter of puppies climb on me. The Ordonez home run to win the pennant was the highest possible high.

But slowly, success became the new normal. We began to expect it. The Tigers have had six more winning seasons since, including four division titles and four playoff series wins. Good players started to see Detroit as a destination and the owner became willing to spare no expense to win. Ten years ago, going to the World Series was the literally the most exciting thing I could imagine. Now I think it might be kinda fun to go back.

I think this applies pretty universally. The idea that people would read things I wrote about baseball on the internet sounded awfully silly when I started the site back in 2012. It was honestly just supposed to be a personal distraction. The idea that people would hire me to write for sites I admired and revered didn’t really cross my mind. To be honest, I used to get stupidly excited when someone moderately important retweeted something I wrote or mentioned they liked it. I’m not a hero worship kind of person, but any attention from anyone established at that point was genuinely really cool.

But all of a sudden I got offers to join Beyond The Box Score and Gammons Daily, then FanGraphs, The Hardball Times, and TigsTown and somehow I was being treated like a peer. I don’t say this to brag about my success, but to illustrate that somewhere along the line “Hey Becky wake up this famous person shared my article with their followers!” became “Um, honey I’ve actually been the managing editor at Beyond the Box Score for like eight months, did I not mention that?” It’s not just the abstract success of a baseball team that became commonplace, it’s things that are very personal as well.

I wish I could time travel to 2012 and tell my former self that 2016 Neil would be kind of annoyed about how long it was taking to finish his most recent article at FanGraphs. Or imagine telling 2005 Neil that 2015 Neil was at peace with the idea that the Tigers might spend a couple years rebuilding.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as so many of the people I’ve come to know in the online baseball writing community are getting what old show biz folks would call their “big breaks.” There are people I came up with working full time for MLB teams or getting tons of exposure at some of the biggest sites in the industry. Heck, there are people I hired while running BTBS who are breaking out as we speak.

And I’m watching them express their unbridled joy, a similar joy I watched Royals fans and Mets fans and Blue Jays fans experience over the last couple of years. And I’m seeing them feel those highs when Congrats Twitter lights up or their team finally has that deep October run. And I can spot the people who are going to have those moments themselves before long.

A few years ago, I’d have been jealous watching other people celebrate championships or get cool new jobs that I didn’t have, but once you’ve had some success, it’s a lot easier to view success as something that’s routine and normal. I probably would have been fuming watching the Royals celebrate if the Tigers hadn’t had plenty of success during this last decade and I’d be much more interested in self-promotion and click chasing if I hadn’t already felt the rush of being asked to write for a site you’ve always loved.

It’s a weird bit of wisdom and it makes you want to assure people that their moment is coming and that after a while it won’t really be that novel. Few things really live up to the insane expectations you create for them. There’s a tendency for people to hear that and feel sad that joy is fleeting, but I’m comforted by it.

I’m totally okay with things just being okay. I’ve learned that I like stability and that I don’t need the Tigers to provide thrilling moment after thrilling moment. I’m perfectly happy with the rhythm of 162 nine inning contests every year, win or lose.

This mindset isn’t for everyone, but it’s one that works for me. After twenty years as a fan and four as a writer, I love the game just as much as ever. Maybe more. But I care far less about the outcomes. I want to watch interesting baseball, but interesting baseball no longer means games in which everything hangs in the balance.

I’m very happy for my friends and colleagues who are experiencing their personal and professional joys and have no intention of raining on any parades, I just felt compelled to acknowledge that these great moments are going to feel ordinary soon. They’ll blend into the rhythm of our lives.

I guess what I’m trying to say is try not to lose sight of the mundane pleasures of life while desperately searching for the promise land because the promise land is going to be a mundane pleasure before too long because your stupid brain is going to get used to it. Enjoy the moments when they come, but don’t let them be the only things that keep you going.

2016 Bellwethers, #3: Nick Castellanos

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5: Francisco Rodriguez | #4: James McCann

It feels like he’s been around forever, but Nick Castellanos is just 24 years old. He was the 44th overall pick in the 2010 draft and essentially from the time he was drafted until he lost his rookie eligibility, he personified the Tigers future. Fans wanted to rush him to the majors to fill a void at second base. They demanded his presence in the OF when the team needed an OF. He was an actual prospect in a system rarely known for having actual prospects!

But after two years as a full-time player, the shine is completely off the apple. He’s been a below average hitter in the majors and has been arguably one of the worst defenders in the game since his arrival. He’s still young, but baseball fans are unforgiving and youth is only an excuse to them when you lack experience. After two years of experience, Castellanos now faces his make or break season.

The ship has sailed on Castellanos as a good defender, not that such a thing was ever likely, but he did go from disastrous to bad from 2014 to 2015, so if he can take a small step forward by eliminating mistakes on easier plays, he should be able to hold on to third base for another year or two. He’s seemed to be a -10 or -15 true talent third basemen based on the numbers and my own observations. If he could arrive somewhere between -5 and -10, we will all consider it a victory.

The question for Castellanos this year will be his bat. His glove just has to be not-embarrassing and we’ll make do. But he was supposed to hit and needs to hit or his place on the roster as someone who will get 600 PA will come into dispute quickly.

If you compare his 2014 and 2015 seasons, they are nearly identical offensively except that the more recent Castellanos hit for more power. Walks, strikeouts, and BABIP were all about the same, but his ISO rose from .135 to .164. Keep in mind that offense went up across the leauge however, so his slight spike in wOBA translated into no movement in his wRC+.

But that is not the point. The point is the turning point. In late June, Ausmus sat Castellanos down for a couple of days and unless Ausmus learns to manage at some point in the future, it will go down as his crowning achievement. From June 23 forward, Castellanos hit .283/.329/.487 (121 wRC+) in 340 PA. For his career prior, those numbers were .247/.293/.372 (83 wRC+) in 852 PA. The difference is an 80 point jump in ISO and a 60 point jump in BABIP.

Was that a smaller sample size aberration? We’ll soon find out. The power absolutely looked real to the naked eye, as Castellanos drove the ball with much more authority when he squared up a pitch, but the BABIP remains to be seen. His style of hitting lends itself to a higher than average BABIP, but there’s a big gulf between a .315 BABIP and a .340 BABIP that we’ll need to litigate over time.

Castellanos has a swing you can dream on and he definitely bulked up between 2014 and 2015. His approach leaves something to be desired but it really might be as simple as learning to lay off the breaking ball low and away. He can’t hit that pitch and once he stopped trying, his numbers perked up. There’s loads of offensive potential in his bat, he just needs to hone his approach now that he’s added enough strength to hit for power.

A 120 wRC+ Castellanos is a totally plausible thing. And if he hits like that with a below average, but not embarrassing glove, the team has themselves a quality big leaguer.

When we were naive and hopeful back in 2013, Castellanos seemed like a good bet to be an average player with an occasional All-Star year. After two rough years, the odds of that player arriving are lower, but they aren’t gone. Castellanos got full-time major league work very early, and he might simply have been a player who didn’t face enough good stuff in the minors to learn how to handle it.

If the June 23+ Castellanos comes back in 2016, the Tigers are going to be in a much better position to win the Central than if the pre-June 23 Castellanos returns. It’s hard to be a real contender when getting replacement level performance from an everyday player, but if Castellanos is ready to make the leap, the Tigers might just get to play beyond Game 162.

2016 Bellwethers, #4: James McCann

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5: Francisco Rodriguez

James McCann is one of the more pivotal members of the 2016 Tigers because we’ve seen flashes of an above average major leaguer within him but the sum total of his contributions so far have been below average. You shouldn’t write off a promising young player because of mediocre performance in his first 500 PA, but those first 500 PA offer a window into the questions we’ve had about McCann all along. Is he built to be a full-time major league catcher or does his future hold years as a backup or the weak side of a platoon?

McCann had an 85 wRC+ in 2015, which puts him 17th among catchers who had a total of 300 or more PA last year. Catchers on average hit around 85-86 wRC+ last year, so his bat is firmly in the average tier. He’s not a front line offensive catcher, but no one expected him to give Buster Posey a run for his money.

McCann walked less than 4% of the time and struck out around 21% of the time, below average and around average respectively. His .122 ISO and .325 BABIP are numbers you’d be happy to see again, but ideally with a little more in terms of on-base ability. A larger red flag was his 149 wRC+ to 64 wRC+ platoon split, especially when he faced righties about three times as often as lefties last year.

No one should argue that a 400 PA sample is enough to demonstrate one’s true platoon split, but it’s not a good sign that he was so vulnerable to right-handed pitching. The split will likely regress in the future, but it’s not terribly common to see someone display a platoon split of this nature over the course of a season without having a bit of a deficiency against same side pitchers, even if the deficiency is less severe than it appeared.

Another big concern is that McCann hit much worse as the season wore on (104 wRC+ to 67 wRC+ from the first half to the second half) and his monthly wRC+ marks were 88-98-80-152-36-76. Again, it’s a small sample, but after the break he was much less effective than he was before the break.

All of these offensive issues circle back to a single question. Is McCann’s 2015 a reflection of his ability going forward or was his offense hampered by the herculean task of learning to be a full-time, everyday catcher in the majors? It’s a tricky thing to parse because if you told me two years ago that McCann was going to settle in as an 85-90 wRC+ guy, that wouldn’t have been a shock. But we saw flashes of something more early last year. Was that slightly better performance a sign of things to come and he simply wore down as the year went on…or did he regress toward his mean as the year went on and the league learned his weaknesses?

This is the central question for McCann’s bat in 2016. Is he an unimpressive hitting catcher with a vulnerability to righties or did he just appear that way last season because the weight of his first season as a major league catcher simply took its toll late in the season? Time will tell.

But there’s another really important aspect to the McCann bellwether, and that’s his framing. If you recall, McCann rated as one of the worse framing catchers in 2015, costing the team somewhere between one and two wins of value with his inability to get borderline strike calls.

As I wrote last year, I’m not terribly concerned about one season of bad framing metrics for a rookie catcher, but it is something you have to monitor. McCann didn’t have a reputation as a poor framer in the minors, although he wasn’t known for being great either. The data supports that idea, but minor league data is also more limiting. If you look at it from a “did-he-get-calls” perspective without knowing exactly where the pitchers were located, McCann appeared to be an adequate receiver in the minors, but when he graduated to the show and we put him under the PITCHf/x microscope, he started to look quite bad.

Mark Simon tweeted this handy graphic just the other day:

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McCann seems capable of keeping high strikes in the zone and balls that come to his right, but pitches to his left (i.e., inside to righties and outside to lefties) seem to give him trouble along with low pitches in general. As I noted in the piece last summer, there are plenty of reasons a young catcher might struggle with framing without being a bad framer, but it would be hard to argue he didn’t struggle.

So another huge question for McCann this year will be if he can improve his receiving. We know he’s got a strong throwing arm and can manage the running game, but getting strikes for the pitching staff is his most important job and failing to come through in this department will wash away his positive contributions elsewhere.

Fortunately, while Brad Ausmus often causes more problems than he solves, this one is right up his alley. In fact, Ausmus was probably one of the better pitch framers in baseball history. If the front office was able to communicate to Ausmus that McCann needed help and Ausmus is an able teacher, there’s reason to be hopeful. We’ve seen in other cases that framing is a teachable skill.

McCann has Saltalamacchia to watch his back this year, but while Salty can bail him out against tough right-handed pitchers, he can’t do anything to help defensively. The Tigers can cover McCann if his offensive questions turn out to be more systemic than they are growing pains, but the defense is a very big deal. I’m nowhere near ready to give up on the 25-year-old backstop, but the Tigers are going to be in a very close race in the Central and every run they give away is going to matter.

McCann gave away 15 to 20 runs with his framing last year, according to the models. If he can get that number into the -5 to -10 range, it will go a long way toward helping the team compete. They can live with the 2015 version of his bat, but they can’t live with the 2015 version of his bat if they also get the 2015 version of his glove.

2016 Bellwethers, #5: Francisco Rodriguez

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe |#6 Jose Iglesias

Rather than paraphrasing what I wrote to introduce the Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe posts, I’ll pull the quote from both about why the new Tigers relievers matter:

Everyone knows the Tigers bullpen was a weak point during the Dombrowski era and Al Avila went into the offseason with only two real locks for the 2016 pen: Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy. While Wilson and Hardy were good in 2015, they aren’t exactly guys you want to point to as your best two arms. Sure the Tigers had some interesting potential like Bruce Rondon, Drew VerHagen, etc, but they needed relief help this winter, and relief help is something they got.

We’ve already covered the importance of Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe in reshaping the bullpen, but Francisco Rodriguez is slated to be the team’s relief ace and will dictate how the best laid plans of Al Avila will unfold. The 34 year old Rodriguez is no longer the superstar reliever he was during his youth, but he doesn’t have to be the 2004-2007 version of himself to help the Tigers win another AL Central crown.

While Rodriguez has had his share of mediocre seasons, he’s been reasonably effective and durable into his thirties. He’s developed more command as he’s aged and while he’s not the strikeout force he was during his peak, he’s still more than capable of recording punch outs. The major question mark as of late has been a propensity to allow the long ball, 35 over his last 243.2 innings (roughly 1.3 HR/9 over his last four seasons). He’s moving back to the American League, but away from a very hitter friendly park into a pretty balanced home yard.

Perhaps Rodriguez’s most interesting transformation is his growing reliance on the changeup:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (4)

This is the kind of thing you like to see from aging pitchers: a willingness to adapt as their physical skills wane.

There’s isn’t one particular thing Rodriguez needs to keep doing, as we’ve noted with some other players during this series, it’s really just that he needs to hold off that inevitable decline a little bit longer. The Tigers overhauled the back of their bullpen this winter, but even if you do everything right, relievers are still relievers. If Wilson-Lowe-Rodriguez generally resemble the 2015 versions of themselves in 2016, the Tigers will have a quality LHP1, RHP1, and Relief Ace capable of holding leads and allowing the offense to get them back to the promise land.

I ranked Rodriguez higher on this list because he’s the anchor. If he fails, more will be asked of every lesser arm in the Tigers bullpen. Each cog in the new bullpen has to play it’s role for the revamp to work, but if you had to pick a most important one, it’s the one who will be asked to get the most outs.

From 2012-2014, the starting rotation and offense were good enough to survive the bullpen, but as the other parts of the roster show their age a bit, the bullpen has to step up and carry it’s weight. A successful year from K-Rod will go a long way toward that aim.

2016 Bellwethers, #6: Jose Iglesias

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe

The 26-year-old Tigers shortstop, Jose Iglesias, is one of the most mesmerizing players in the game. He certainly lacks the preternatural gifts of guys like Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, but Iglesias provides some of the game’s most jaw-dropping, unable-to-find-words moments of any player in the game. No one disputes this. Remember the running catch in 2013 ALDS? That was preposterous. Remember that weird, sprawling thing he did against the White Sox that year? He’s flashy, and as Nick Castellanos said, he’s probably a good dancer.

From a raw ability standpoint, there aren’t many infielders better than Iglesias. Andrelton Simmons comes to mind, but Iglesias would be right there in the non-Simmons tier when it comes to talent. However, his defensive metrics have been a little uninspired. If you like UZR, he’s been solidly above average for his career, but not in any sort of extraordinary way. And last year, he was only a couple runs better than average for the position. DRS has been even less kind, suggesting that he’s only been slightly better than average for his career and was worse than average in 2015.

While I would absolutely caution you not to put too much weight on 1,800 innings of the metrics, I wrote last year that there is some evidence that Iglesias hasn’t been the vacuum cleaner we seem to think he is. That said, Iglesias’ flaws are fixable. He has tremendous ability (range, hands, and arm) and the runs he gives away are on plays that require a little more focus and execution. If you can make great plays, you can learn to fix the problems you have on easier ones.

So part of Iglesias’ 2016 will be about avoiding miscues on those easier and mid-range plays. He’s going to blow you away with some great defense, but saving a run by making a great play only goes so far if you boot a routine play the next day. Few are better than Iglesias from a talent perspective, but he need to take a step forward defensively so that the Tigers can get the most out of that ability. He’s probably played like a +5 shortstop recently, even though he has +10 to +15 talent. Getting those extra five or ten runs is going to be huge for the Tigers as they chase Cleveland and Kansas City.

Another thing that popped up last year was bad base running numbers. Part of it was stolen base related (he got caught way too much) and part happened while the ball was in play. I think most of that is structural and the Tigers need to address it as a whole, so I won’t focus too much on it here. The only thing I’ll say is that letting Iglesias get caught 8 times in 19 attempts last year indicates a team with a bad base running approach. Based on what I saw from the entire club, I don’t think it reflects the player in question today and will expect to get better now that the team hopefully understands how many runs they gave away being “aggressive.”

I think the real question for Iglesias, and through him the Tigers, is whether he’s really going to be a league average hitter. In 2013 he had a 103 wRC+ and in 2015 it was 97. The statistical models aren’t buying a repeat because Iglesias wasn’t a great hitter in the minors and has succeeded in the show with high BABIPs. Steamer, ZiPS, etc are expecting something in the 85-90 wRC+ range for 2016.

The average shortstop had an 87 wRC+ in 2015, so the difference here is the projection systems seeing him as an average hitter for the position with a slightly above average glove. Roughly speaking, that’s a 2 WAR player. Two win players are great, and Iglesias is cost-controlled, but if the Tigers are going to be Contenders with a capital C, they need more from Iggy.

FanGraphs also host a projection system called “Fans” which is based on fan estimates of player performance. As I’m writing this, 21 people have voted and they expect something like a 99 wRC+ and solidly above average defense, good for 3.5 WAR over a full season. The defensive difference is easy to understand as the models only know Iglesias’ performance, they can’t watch him do things to base runners that should probably be against the Geneva Convention. The offensive side of the difference is mostly BABIP. The computers and the fans see similar profiles, but the fans add about 20 points of BABIP and an extra 1% to his walk rate.

I obviously don’t know who’s right, but the fans do have a pretty strong case given that Iglesias’ career BABIP is .328 when the projection systems are forecasting it to be around .310. He’s a ground ball/ line drive hitter who gets plenty of infield hits, so a BABIP above .300 is to be expected, it’s just a question of how much higher it will be.

But that’s the question. Iglesias is going to hit a couple dingers, knock 20 doubles, and have a low walk rate. That’s his game. But last year he cut down on his strikeouts by a lot (under 10% after being in the 15-20% range for his career) and has always put up a quality BABIP. If he can rack up plenty of singles, he can be an average MLB hitter.

Just for reference, let’s say he gets 500 PA in 2016. Cut out 30 for walks and HBP, another 50 for strikeouts, and you’re left with about 420 balls in play expected. The difference between a .300 BABIP and .325 BABIP is about 11 hits. Let’s assume the difference is all singles, even if that’s not a sure thing. Trading 11 outs for 11 singles is worth about 80% of a win. Of course you already knew that given the difference in the projections we discussed earlier.

The key here is that it doesn’t take much, roughly two hits a month, to make the difference between an average hitting shortstop and a well-above average hitting shortstop. If Iglesias can continue to hit like the latter and play up to his potential on defense, he could net the Tigers an additional two wins or so for 2016.

Given how close the race figure to be, an Iglesias that plays to his potential would go a long way toward getting the team back to meaningful October baseball.

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